This is issue #12 of the Magpie Digest newsletter, originally sent on 6/7/2018
Over the last week, the Chinese internet has embraced an unlikely new avatar of female liberation: a pop star-in-training named 王菊 (Wang Ju, who also goes by the English name “Naomi”).
Wang Ju is a contestant on 创造101 (Chuangzao/“Produce” as in music; we’ll refer to it as CZ101), a singing competition show streaming on Tencent Video in which 101 contestants compete for the chance to become a member of China’s next big girl group. The show, a licensed remake of Korea’s Produce 101 from 2016, is the latest in a wave of pop-group-making shows launched on streaming services this year, after the government discouraged TV networks from broadcasting the popular genre.
CZ101 is a high-budget master class on aspirational femininity in today’s China, and Wang Ju’s unexpected rise in popularity over the last few weeks is a loud signal of a broader questioning of societal norms around femininity.
Breaking China’s Narrow Beauty Standards
Though Wang Ju may look like a standard aspirational pop star to American eyes, she is a visible outlier on the show on multiple levels. She is a manager to models by day, and one of only 4 contestants on the show who doesn’t come from the rigorous corporate trainee system the Chinese entertainment industry imported from Korean pop labels. She also doesn’t fit China’s narrow beauty standards for celebrity women, which is likewise heavily influenced by Korea and Japan’s entertainment industries: doe-eyed, stick-thin, light-skinned, and aegyo cute.
(There are two other style outliers among the frontrunners, but both follow familiar archetypes in Chinese and Korean pop, and are therefore less of a shock to viewers than Wang Ju. Sunnee, a tomboy from Thailand, invokes the androgynous style popularized in China by former reality show champion Chris Lee and K-pop rapper Amber Liu. Yamy, who previously competed on Rap of China, is a tough but kind leader reminiscent of K-pop’s CL.)
Despite her visible competence, Wang Ju’s initial performances drew criticism from viewers of the show who believed she was unsuitable for a girl group. She is described online euphemistically as “dark,” “sturdy,” and “aggressive”; some online viewers referred to her as the “auntie contestant,” while others went even further.
Left: A Weibo post making fun of Wang Ju after her first performance went viral, coining the first Wang Ju meme (on right).
1) Original post: “Wang Ju, I suspect he [sic] could single-handedly defeat Thanos.” (1090 shares, 789 comments, 1901 likes)
2) Commenter: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” [a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest]
3) Commenter: “Let me fix that for you: Hell is empty, Wang Ju is on [a derogatory nickname for the Chinese version of Produce 101 that implies its inferiority to the Korean version]” (also the text on the meme, right)
An Icon Rises
What turned the tide of public opinion on Wang Ju was her seemingly unshakeable self-confidence — and the fervent support of China’s gay community.
After old photos of a skinnier, paler Wang Ju surfaced online, she surprised viewers by explaining in an interview that she changed her style and appearance of her own volition, and that she wouldn’t want to return to the more societally-accepted look because it didn’t fit her idea of beauty. This placed her in stark contrast with the vast majority of CZ101’s other contestants, who are depicted as self-critical and awash in insecurities (especially about their weight). Against this backdrop, Wang Ju unflinchingly embraced the vitriol hurled at her online instead, re-enacting the “Hell is empty” meme during practice and cheekily referring to herself as “an emissary of Hell” after a performance. She even addressed her haters head-on in a speech when she was close to elimination.
“There are those who say that people like me aren’t suitable for girl groups. But what is the standard for who gets to be in a girl group? Me, I’ve already swallowed [a reference to her performance] the standards. The power to define China’s next girl group now rests in your hands.”
Wang Ju might be a strange fit for an idol, but her style and confidence were the makings of a diva. Adding to that a message of self-acceptance in the face of contradictory societal expectations, she attracted an unexpected but passionate fanbase in China’s gay men. As prominent gay publication DanLan put it: “Everything Wang Ju has been through, we gays have been through before.” Her new fanbase began playfully referring to her as 菊昂斯 (“Juyoncé”), 麻辣菊 (a complicated pun that basically translates to “Nicki Minaju”), and even 卡迪菊 (“Cardi Ju”) as a nod to the self-confident, bossed up American pop stars they saw as her peers. These fans got to work, assembling WeChat groups encouraging each other to vote for their new icon every day in order to keep her in the show, and even using WeChat’s “Drift Bottle” feature to attempt to convert strangers.
The playful but persistent attitude of her fans flooded social media and converted new followers at an impressive rate. Fans coined a term, 菊外人 (the word for “outsider” punned with Wang Ju’s name), to refer to people whose social media have been overtaken by Wang Ju-related content, even if they had no idea who she is.
A New Role Model for Female Fans
Over the course of CZ101’s two latest episodes, Wang Ju went from being nearly eliminated to being one of the most popular (and most talked about) contestants on the show. Her popularity is soaring among women in particular — including many who vote for her religiously without ever having watched the show — in part due to a larger conversation around women’s agency in China.
Two weeks ago, the shocking murder and presumed sexual assault of a female passenger by a Didi (ride-hailing service) driver pulled other sordid stories of assault and murder into the national spotlight. Among women, these stories have sparked fresh outrage and frustration at how societal expectations around being docile, self-sacrificing, and hyper-sensitive to criticism puts them at risk of abuse and prevents institutions from taking their concerns seriously.
To Wang Ju’s new female fans, her self-confidence and assertiveness arrive just in time to articulate a new model of femininity to aspire to.
Recently, I’ve been quietly observing many straight male internet commenters, livestreamers, and verified accounts taking jabs at Wang Ju. To be honest, this is about who controls the conversation. Through dissing Wang Ju’s appearance, figure, style, and behavior, they are upholding their straight male control over the conversation. What women should or shouldn’t be like, what counts as beautiful or not; the opinions of straight men used to determine these things, but the world is slowly changing. It makes sense that they’re mad about it.
- Sixth Tone: Meet China’s Latest Unlikely Gay Icon (English)
- Zhihu: a popular answer to “Why has Wang Ju from CZ101 won over so many people?” (Chinese)
- Full episodes of CZ101 are available on Tencent Video’s YouTube channel in Chinese. There is a volunteer group creating non-official English subtitled episodes.
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Magpie Digest is a project of Magpie Kingdom, a consultancy that provides analysis, business advisory services, and custom research to help businesses translate their value for the Chinese market. The Magpie team (Christina Xu, Tricia Wang, and Pheona Chen) is based in New York and Shanghai.
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